It’s rare anyone gets a peek behind the curtain of a New York City stage. It seems even less likely that with all the safety concerns of producing amid a pandemic — not to mention an entire industry’s internal reckoning with its historical racial exclusion — a film crew would be asked to chronicle it.
But New York City’s Public Theater has been making history since its opening and continues that trend with HBO’s latest doc, Reopening Night. The home of Shakespeare in the Park gives viewers an unprecedented look at one of the most significant moments in both its and the theater industry’s history as the company launches one of the first large-scale theater productions in New York for more than a year.
Currently streaming on HBO Max, the documentary chronicles the process of adapting and producing Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. Featuring an all-Black ensemble and centered on Harlem’s African immigrant community, the production marked the first performance on the Delacorte Theater stage following the city-wide shutdown.
For Reopening Night director Rudy Valdez, the task of chronicling one of the earliest returns to live performance was partly a personal endeavor, sparked by a visit to the city and a friend’s urging to see Twelfth Night in Central Park.
“We went and sat in a line for this free Shakespeare in the Park that I didn’t really know a ton about,” he says. “But sitting in that line — experiencing that with the other people who are waiting to go and see this free show and then going that night and watching under the stars — I was like, ‘This is New York. This is theater.’”
Beyond his relationship to The Public, the chance to capture the story of such “a storied institution that has seen so many different iterations” was something that had already been in the works before the pandemic, thanks to two of the doc’s producers. A crew just hadn’t been let in yet.
“We are somewhat cautious, as you can imagine, about allowing filmmakers in part because there are many regulations that we have to hurdle over, but mostly because the act of making theater is a pretty private process at times,” Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director, explained. “There are very raw delicate things that get discussed, and you need the safety of the rehearsal room to do that.”
Those trepidations were exacerbated by concerns around sharing space amid an ongoing pandemic, as well as the national protests that followed the death of George Floyd.
“At that time, I felt that we couldn’t afford that,” he says. “The racial reckoning was happening. There was an enormous amount of free-floating emotion in the theater. It was a very, very delicate time. So we basically said, ‘We can’t do this right now.’”
Eustis assumed that would be the end of it. But producers Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz — who had been introduced to the artistic director by a Public board member — were “extremely lovable” and persistent. That, with “the fact that every time we talked, it felt like they really understood the delicacy to this,” led to the theater considering and then accepting the offer.
Once inside, the tale of two Reopening Night stories began: one of Rudy’s team and The Public’s — both working on getting their productions off the ground. But also one of a pandemic and a racial reckoning. First, though, they had to get through unprecedented weather, threatening to take down their sets.
“You get a sense of the weather in the film and that it is the worst summer that we have had since I’ve been here. The climate is changing, and it absolutely was a huge obstacle course,” Eustis says.
This part of the journey is well-chronicled in the doc, a near metaphorical representation of theater rebuilding itself from the foundation up after a year of going dormant and many more years of unaddressed discrimination and exclusion. Yet, keeping up a set during severe weather was hardly the endeavor’s biggest hurdle.
With no industry precedents yet set, The Public had to develop — and change over time — its protocols for Shakespeare in the Park. One of the show’s artistic staff led the effort, which included quarantining those who tested positive. Eustis acknowledges the show had some positive cases but notes that among the 150 people working on the show, “not a single case of transmission connected to the public theater.”
COVID also unsurprisingly impacted Valdez’s work, particularly when trying to access the production’s shared creative spaces. “I wanted to be sensitive to who this filmmaker was going to be because already we were going to have to be conscientious about space not only in terms of energy but the sheer logistics of only being allowed to have like X number of people in the room at any given time,” Saheem Ali, the director of Shakespeare in the Park’s Merry Wives, tells THR.
Once inside, the next challenge for Valdez was building the rapport necessary with the production’s cast and crew. Getting any subject to trust a director is challenging, let alone now.
“I’m somebody who wears their heart on their sleeve and who you always know what you’re getting with,” Valdez says. “However, during this process, I was forced to cover most of my face and be in a mask the entire time. So I had to figure out ways to still connect with people and tear down those barriers that are between us.”
“That’s in every single instance of documentary filmmaking,” he adds, “But on top of that, in this pandemic, not only do they have to trust me with their story, you also have to have them trust you enough with their life. They have to trust I’m somebody who’s coming in and not putting them at risk of getting sick.”
For Jocelyn Bioh, the show’s playwright, letting the cameras in didn’t spark “too many mixed feelings,” though it did raise a number of questions. That includes whether the show, which she wrote in two months versus a more typical 18-month time span, ultimately should have happened at all.
“I was having real questions about why should we be doing Shakespeare right now. Why should we be going back to the park? Why this particular play?” she says. “There was some guilt I even felt about the fact that I’m a comedic writer. It’s like, why should we be laughing? Should we be coming out of this moment and trying to find joy? Even the idea of these terms Black joy, Black pain — is that something I should be leaning into or leaning against?”
She continues, “I wasn’t really sure but I felt more than comfortable asking those questions of myself. I took that responsibility to heart and just wanted to do good work, and I’m glad that the documentary was actually there to chronicle what trying to do good work means.”
In addition to already being in a “vulnerable personal state” due to being in quarantine for a year and a half, Bioh also asked herself if she even felt comfortable going on camera. Especially when it came to speaking honestly about her experiences with racism and discrimination in the theater community.
“As we were talking to [executive producers O’Neill and Peltz], we were saying, ‘Look, this is going to be a room full of people of color, and it’s going to be a room full of people who are also trying to figure out how to be in space together,” Ali says. “So whoever your filmmaker is, they have to be someone who has sensitivity, who has heart, who has grace, who has generosity. Because we’re going to have to allow them to be in the room and hopefully ignore and embrace that they’re there.”
For Bioh, ultimately Valdez and his crew made it very clear that the doc was “going to lead with honesty” and “made all of us feel very safe and secure that there wasn’t going to be a kind of gotcha-gotcha moment with the footage they were capturing.”
“Maybe I would have a different answer for you five years ago when I felt like I was just kind of getting my footing finally as a playwright in theater in New York and was just kind of trying to please everyone,” the playwright says. “But after the couple of years that we’ve been through and just even what I’ve been through as an artist in New York, I was ready and prepared to act and respond to the tough criticisms that I have of the theater.”
Those criticisms boiled down to a single question, addressed by interviews with various Black members of the show’s cast and production crew. “Have you all answered — you all meaning The Public Theater or theater-at-large — the question that we’ve been asking about how to make a better, more inclusive, more safe space for artists of color,” she says.
What the attempts to answer that led to was an experience on stage and on screen helmed by men of color who chose to center experiences Merry Wives director Ali says he rarely got “to see elevated and uplifted on stages whenever I went to see Shakespeare.”
“In telling the story of this production, we don’t just focus on the leads of the show,” Valdez says. “We focus on the crew members; we focus on the infrastructure; we focus on everything that it takes to put a show like this. I wanted to be equitable in the storytelling to show how equitable they are in putting up a show.”
As the Reopening Night director was capturing what Ali calls the “democracy and diversity” of Merry Wives on film, the stage director opted to show not just a Black-led ensemble — to his knowledge Shakespeare in the Park’s only second company of all Black actors — but a comedy about African immigrants in New York that was both “uplifting and joyful.”
“Because we had just suffered for so long, I wanted to create that energy with a room full of people of color,” he says.
To do it, he called in dialect coaches and got Shakespeare experts, including Ayanna Thompson, a black female Shakespeare scholar who wowed the playwright because she had “never met somebody like that before.”
“For me, this was essential because I wanted to show if we’re coming back and we’re coming back different, well, whose stories are we telling? How are we telling them?” he says. “Shakespeare is the medium with which because that is just like the language and the relationships and the characters we create are so beautiful and vibrant. And they’ve lasted all this time. But we have to have Shakespeare speak to the current moment.”
The result, visible throughout every moment of the 90-minute Reopening Night, is just how much the production was a “life-changing moment for so many” working on both the stage show and documentary.
For Bioh, it was a particularly satisfying chance to highlight the experiences of Black artists and people, whose pandemic year was so much more than masks and tests.
“The pandemic and that racial reckoning are inextricably linked for us, so what I appreciate the most about this documentary is that it highlights it’s not about just making a play in the middle of a pandemic,” she explains. “We are artists of color who are all deciding to step back into the lion’s den and unpack these incredible feelings and traumas from both last year and probably the last 20 years of our lives as artists. And we’re deciding to do all of that on stage and in front of the camera in a documentary.”
For Eustis, Reopening Night also captured a pivotal turning point in his understanding of what leading The Public means in practice, shifting him from a more privatized approach to creative decision-making and handing more control over to directors like Ali.
“I think the message that we were getting, and certainly I’d say the message that I got, is that all of the inclusion that we had done here to fore, was not quite radical enough. What I needed to do as a leader was turnover even more of the fundamental decision-making authority to other people,” the artistic director says. “It turned out to be an incredibly smart choice. As I went through the summer, I went, ‘This is actually changing my idea about leadership and changing ideas on what leadership is and should be.’ And I’m not going to go back to the way it was before.”